Iran's parliament convened Tuesday for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak forced its doors to close, as the country reported a drop in new infections for the seventh straight day.
More than two-thirds of the legislature's 290 members gathered in the absence of speaker and veteran politician Ali Larijani, who tested positive for COVID-19 last week. At least 31 members of the parliament, or Majles, which had been shut since February 25, have contracted the disease.
State television footage of the opening session showed some MPs huddling together despite guidelines on social distancing to stop the spread of the virus. Parliament debated and eventually blocked an urgent bill to totally lock down the country for a month, with those against arguing it would damage the economy.
"This plan is against jobs and growing productivity. Who's going to pay for implementing it?" MP Shadmehr Kazemzadeh said, according to the semi-official news agency ISNA.
But Abdolkarim Hosseinzadeh, who drafted the bill, said Iran had been "confused" about how to contain the virus.
"We must urgently make a decision, as history will judge us," he said.
Health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour reported 133 new coronavirus deaths, saying the overall fatalities had reached 3,872. Another 2,089 infections were recorded nationwide, bringing the total to 62,589.
Iran announced its first COVID-19 cases on Feb. 19, when it said two people had died from the illness. Jahanpour said while 3,987 patients were in critical condition, recoveries had increased and a total of 27,039 people had left the hospital.
Iran is by far the worst hit by the pandemic in the Middle East, according to official tolls. There has been speculation abroad that the real number of deaths and infections could be higher, however.
In a bid to halt COVID-19, Iran has ordered the closure of non-essential businesses and imposed inter-city travel bans, while refraining from a lockdown. But its task force to battle the virus said "low-risk" businesses would be allowed to reopen from Saturday while observing health protocols.
The body said two-thirds of public servants must go to work and the rest could do so from home. It also said newspaper and magazine publishers could resume their print editions from Saturday, after being barred for a week.
Authorities are yet to define what low-risk businesses are and have been criticized for sending mixed signals by relaxing social distancing measures.
"We're seeing a duality in senior officials remarks," ISNA quoted the head of Tehran's city council as saying.
"On one hand, there's the health ministry asking for more stringent measures, and on the other economic officials decide things that make people feel the coronavirus is not so dangerous after all," said Mohsen Hasehmi.
A task force member said anyone going back to work could become a virus "cluster bomb" as many of those infected were asymptomatic.
"I don't know what's the reasoning for such a decision," state news agency IRNA quoted Hamid Souri as saying Monday.
Officials said the reopening of businesses was meant to save the economy.
"We cannot shut down industries and production" at a time of "economic war" amid crippling U.S. sanctions, Health Minister Saeid Namaki told parliament.
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